Now that the dust has settled the clear up can begin

It’s one of the most famous lines from Father Ted: the money was just resting in my account. But at least Father Ted knew how many accounts he had.

Now that the dust has settled the clear up can begin

It’s one of the most famous lines from Father Ted: the money was just resting in my account. But at least Father Ted knew how many accounts he had.

In the cacophony of evidence given by FAI officials at the recent Oireachtas committee hearings, honorary treasurer Eddie Murray’s understanding that the FAI had only one bank account and not 24, was a moment that encapsulated what the last number of weeks has been all about.

Murray genuinely believed that the FAI had a sole bank account. He was not in any way trying to mislead the Oireachtas Committee. He simply appeared not to know.

And there remains the nub of the FAI’s troubles – now the subject of multiple auditing, governance and even legal investigation: was it a case of a minority in the know; and the majority, including many on the FAI Board, kept on a need to know basis?

The current FAI farrago started with journalist Mark Tighe revealing that John Delaney had provided the FAI with a €100,000 loan in 2017, purportedly because the association had some short-term cash flow issues. In 2017, the FAI’s turnover was €49 million yielding a retained surplus of €2.8 million.

The specifics of the loan transaction remain opaque; though it is clear, in that very Irish way, that the various investigations prompted by it – auditors, corporate enforcement etc – will likely cost Irish football and taxpayers more than the original amount.

Arguably, the spark for the FAI’s current troubles could easily have been dowsed if John Delaney had, at the first Oireachtas committee hearing, as the person who signed the cheque, proffered answers on the loan.

Instead, as was his fundamental right, he explained to the committee that on legal advice he was precluded form answering questions on his tenure as FAI CEO.

Fair procedures at Oireachtas committees has been the subject of Supreme Court decisions and even a referendum. Delaney mentioned the Angela Kerins case where in February the Supreme Court held that the Public Accounts Committee had in part acted beyond its remit in questioning the former chief executive of the Rehab Group.

In essence, and as aggravated by some grandstanding in the past by politicians, the Irish courts have said that parliamentary committees can go too far in interrogating individuals, violating their constitutional right to fairness and straying into territory otherwise reserved for the courts.

In 2011, there was a referendum designed to ensure that Oireachtas committees would not be unduly hindered in their inquiries by procedural objections, but it was defeated. Thus, the legal basis for John Delaney’s silence, at the now infamous first Oireachtas hearing, was sound.

The problem with legal advice is that it is often very one dimensional - adversarially protecting and focused on the client’s interests. Delaney’s silence though tactically correct in strict legal opinion, was a strategic disaster in the broader public opinion.

The FAI is now subject of multiple reviews – Grant Thornton, Mazars and even the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE).

The FAI’s auditors, Deloitte, have initiated a process that might hold the FAI Board in breach of company law for failure to keep proper accounts and which, in combination with an ODCE investigation, can theoretically entail criminal liability.

Deloitte’s alertness in this regard may well trigger that most penetrating investigation into the workings of the FAI – the footsteps left on the money trail are always the last to blow away - though the chances of it resulting in criminal prosecution are slight.

Convictions of this kind in Ireland are rare; indeed, on the ODCE’s website it lists only one prosecution from last year. In any event, ODCE investigations take time and, given past experience, Stephen Kenny will likely be well settled as Irish manager by the time the current ODCE process is finished.

In a broader sense, and as was the case with the banks’ role in the economic crash post-2008, it would be preferable if in Irish law auditors and corporate enforcement agencies were better empowered to first identify potential leaks rather than afterwards pointing us to the flood.

As Father Dougal replied to Ted’s plea that the money had only been resting in his account – yes Ted, but it was there for a while.

Apart from auditing concerns, the FAI’s governance is also being reviewed. A previous governance review – the one which recommended the creation of the Executive Vice President role for John Delaney - has been as important an element to this whole saga as the 100K loan.

Creating such a position was very odd for two reasons. Best practice in sports governance suggests that you do not create posts tailored for one person, no matter how talented or “needed” that person might appear to be for that sports organisation.

In this case, the “need” for an Executive VP (a post with a salary that placed it on par with the IRFU and GAA CEOs) was linked to Delaney’s membership of UEFA’s Executive, which consists of the UEFA President, 16 other members elected by a UEFA Congress, plus two elected by the European Club Association and one by the European Leagues.

Interestingly, to be elected to the UEFA Executive, a candidate must hold an “active office” in a national football association. The list of active offices mentioned in UEFA regulations is specifically limited to “president, vice-president, general secretary or chief executive officer.” There is no mention of or need for a VP to be an “executive” office. Only two of the current UEFA Executive are vice presidents of their respective FAs – England’s David Gill and Servet Yardımcı of Turkey. Neither holds an “executive” VP position.

The current governance review of the FAI, agreed with Sport Ireland, is to be led by Aidan Horan of the Institute of Public Administration. If I was Mr Horan, I would look at two things.

First, here in Australia, the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) recently underwent a period of crisis and reform. The similarities are uncanny: there was a power struggle as pro-reform elements in the FFA sought to remove the influence of one family, the Lowy’s, who had controlled and, to be fair, essentially bankrolled the sport for 15 years.

Lowy supporters wanted a longer transition and more recognition of the good work done in the past. Sport Australia (as the statutory body responsible for good governance in sport) and FIFA (always sensitive to governmental interference) were neutral but also involved.

Pro-reform elements wanted better and more diverse representation on boards and committees. Diversity of representation is not confined simply to gender balance (though that is needed throughout football – there is only one woman on the UEFA Executive and the FAI Board) but to diversity of thought and opinion. The Oireachtas Committee which questioned the FAI was a good example of this in action – from Ruth Coppinger, to Imelda Munster and Catherine Murphy.

The FFA reformers eventually won out and the lessons from Australian soccer should be heeded in Ireland.

One particular point of caution is that sometimes governance reforms swing wildly from one extreme (autocratic control) to another (a proliferation of committees). This is often done with good intentions, but a governance system can also end up with too many checks and balances and a CEO can be frustratingly hamstrung in their day to day decision making.

Second and closer to home, the reforms at Swim Ireland and the Olympic Federation of Ireland have been suggested as good templates. The layers of participation, administration and stakeholders within the FAI (schools to the League of Ireland) are much more complex than either SI or OFI. Nevertheless, what both SI and OFI have in common is that reform was led by Ireland’s most outstanding sports administrator, Sarah Keane.

Keane is one of those leaders who is not afraid to surround herself with equally talented people and interestingly has recruited from the FAI in the recent past – former FAI operations officer Peter Sherrard is the OFI’s CEO and former deputy CEO of the FAI, Sarah O’Shea was involved in the reform of the Olympic Council.

When all else settles, the key to the FAI’s future will be in the calibre of people it recruits and especially the next CEO.

I sat on the FAI Appeals body for a while. I met loads of good, competent people in the organisation and including Rea Walshe, the interim CEO, who ran a disciplinary process that was much more effective, I thought, than others I was involved with in Ireland.

I only ever met John Delaney once. He is entitled to due process over the next few months. From afar; Delaney the administrator struck me, by analogy, as the type of referee that most players eventually tire of – talented, committed but who too often wants to be the centre of attention. The next FAI CEO should be more like the referee that most players like or, at least, tolerate – unobtrusive, consistent, firm but fair and generally in the background so that the game of football can flourish.

- Jack Anderson, Professor and Director of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne

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